The Literary History of a Rabbinic Genre by Peter J. Haas

Haym Soloveitchik writes:

I have read good books and I have read bad books, and now I have read a book by Peter J. Haas. It has been a singular experience, and I would like to share it with others.

The author, a disciple of Jacob Neusner and currently a professor of religion at Vanderbilt University, opens with a survey of the “academic study of responsa” and bemoans the neglect of this important genre. Responsa, he claims, have been studied from two vantage points only, and by precious few scholars at that. Several scholars, such as Isidore Epstein and Irving Agus, have mined it for historical data or for the mental universe of a single author. Others, such as David Feldman, have used it to trace the development of a foundational set of values. Both of these approaches suffer from the same fatal flaw: They “shared and perpetuated a conception taken over from traditional rabbinism, namely, that Jewish legal tradition is a rather stable ahistoric ‘thing’ that can be comprehended altogether . . . and that subsequent rabbinic law was simply the unfolding and ramification of the system along essentially predetermined lines” (pp. 17-18). There have been, of course, Haas adds, notable exceptions, such as Jacob Katz’s Exclusiveness and Tolerance, and this writer’s article on usury in the Proceedings of the American Academy for Jewish Research. The “turning point” in the study of responsa, Haas announces, was Jacob Lauterbach’s entry on “responsa” in the Jewish Encyclopedia in 1905 (pp. 18-19). Our author is apparently unaware of the writings of Yitzhak Baer, Salo Baron, Eliezer Bashan, H. H. Ben-Sasson, Menahem Ben-Sasson, Reuven Bonfil, and Mordechai Breuer, to mention only historians whose names begin with B. He is equally innocent of the works
of Menahem Elon, Shmuel Shilo, Gideon Lebson, and Nahum Rackover, to list but a few figures of the mishpat ‘ivri school…

This is not to say that Haas hasn’t read anything. He has, indeed; and much of what he has read, not to speak of what it has enabled him to see, will come as a revelation to most scholars. For works on “the difference between early French and Spanish Jewry,” we are referred to a tome issued by the Pickwick Press of Pittsburgh, authored by Philip Sigal, entitled The Emergence of Contemporary Judaism (p. 135); for information on Rashi, we are referred to a work by one Samuel Blumenthal, entitled The Master of Troyes: A Study of Rashi the Educator (p. 140). Our author has read one book on the Middle Ages, Norman Cantor’s Medieval History: The Life and Death of a Civilization. From Cantor’s six pages on the revival of jurisprudence in the twelfth century, Haas is able to detect the influence of German legal scholars on Ravyah (p. 164). He has read several articles in English on rhetoric in the Middle Ages, and this has enabled him to discern Ciceronian (yes, Ciceronian) influences on Rashi (p. 149). Readers will also discover that the Jewish community of Troyes was devastated in the First Crusade and that “Ravyah succeeded his father around 1200 as chief rabbi of Berlin” (pp. 141, 165). All this is but a small sample of the rich surprises that await the reader.

Our author might well contend that the reason he has not read much in the writings of others is that he has a different agenda. He seeks to bring a new mode of analysis to bear upon the responsa literature-that of communication theory. Indeed, the entire second chapter of the book is taken up with the presentation of this theory. And there is little that any of the above works could contribute to such a discourse. There may be some merit to this claim. What may be legitimately demanded of Haas, or of anyone else who chooses responsa as the subject of his or her book, is a basic literacy in Rabbinics, that is to say, competence in Talmud, a command of halakhic technique, and, needless to say, a knowledge of Rabbinic Hebrew…

That he did not look at Rashi (a frequent omission of his) is understandable, given the difficulties that he has, as we shall soon see, in understanding him.2 What is astonishing is that he did not even look at the Soncino translation, which renders the passage accurately. This is a pattern that repeats itself throughout the book: Haas mistranslates and misconstrues passages that are accurately rendered in Soncino and, as we shall see further on, mistranslates words and phrases found in Jastrow’s dictionary. A second pattern instantiated in this passage is that of fictitious reference (here to Rashi). Again and again, citations are given to both rabbinic and general sources that simply do not exist…

“(1) I found it explicitly in Rashi’s comments to b. B. Mes. 91a: “The Torah forbids the hire of a harlot even if one had relations with his mother … (Deut. 23:19).” (2) The point, according to Rashi, is that one who brings a harlot into the Temple must pay her fee, even though bringing her [there] was illicit to begin with. (3) This does not contradict b. San. 72a, which reports, “Rabbi had some sheep stolen by one who broke into the house through a tunnel. (4) Later, they wanted to return the sheep, but he would not accepthem, saying, ‘I go according to Rava [who ruled that because of mortal danger to which such thieves exposed themselves, the stolen goods are deemed to be theirs.’]” (5) Further, by turning the capital offense into a kind of purchase, we allow them to clear their names before heaven, even if they do not want to come clear before heaven. (6) This is shown in b. B. Qam 70b.”

1. (a) There is no such verse in Deuteronomy. (b) Why the “even”? If the whore with whom you had intercourse happens to be your mother, does this make the offense less grave? Perhaps we are misconstruing Haas’s translation. The verse or dictum given us may equally mean: Even one who has had relations with his mother may not hire a harlot. If this be the intent, had anyone heretofore suggested that committing incest permits consorting with harlots, that one needs a verse (or a talmudic dictum) to specifically enjoin it?

2. (a) There is no such statement of Rashi at the cited place or anywhere else in the Talmud. Nor could there be. There is no law against paying a prostitute to go with you to the Temple. It is hardly the best of company, but there’s no law whatsoever against it. (b) Let us grant Haas his fictitious citation, how does an injunction against bringing harlots into the Temple prove anything about the restitution of usury?

3-4. This passage certainly does not “contradict” the previous sentence; it has nothing to do with it. What does stealing sheep through a tunnel have to do with bringing prostitutes to the Temple? Furthermore, how can “Rabbi” cite a ruling of “Rava,” who lived four generations later?

5. What does this sentence, in itself, mean? What does it mean in context; what does it have to do with the whores in the Temple? (The text is not responsible. The sentence is Haas’s creation. He has added no less than thirteen words that are not found in the original.)

6. There is nothing in B. Qam. that is even vaguely reminiscent of these statements; and if Haas had difficulties with the text in the original, a simple glance in Soncino would have revealed this to him.

Two final questions: (1) What does this whole paragraph about sheep and whores mean? It’s an agglomeration of meaningless sentences. (2) How is this paragraph, whatever it may mean, connected to what precedes and follows it? This paragraph is brought as “explicit proof’ for inability to compel restitution of the interest obtained by charity from its loans. What do sheep, whores, and incest have to do with usury?

To unravel the errors in this one brief paragraph would require several pages. Let us content ourselves with simply saying that Haas’s troubles here begin not with Rashi, not with the Talmud, nor even with Rabbinic Hebrew and Aramaic (all of which cause problems for him), but with the English Bible, with the King James version of the Good Book. The verse “Thou shalt not bring the hire of a whore into the house of the Lord thy God” (Deut. 23:18) does not mean, as Haas thinks, “Thou shalt not hire a whore to come with you into the house of the Lord,” but “Thou shalt not bring into the house of the Lord [i.e., offer as sacrifice] the hire [i.e., the payment] given to the whore (for her services).”3 “Hire” in this verse is a noun (and preceded by “the”), not a verb. And building on his misconstruction of the Bible, our author proceeds to further misconstrue the Talmud and Rashi, inventing new verses, new laws, and entirely new passages in the Talmud as he makes his way…

This passage, and the numerous others like it, are but an extension of another, yet more frequent problem; indeed, one that plagues the entire book, namely, literal translation of technical terms without any explanation, and often without any comprehension of their legal meaning. Any court decision will invoke five or ten basic concepts of the system, almost inadvertently-which is why teaching American law in a foreign country by the case method is so difficult…

What is most striking is not simply Haas’s ignorance but also his approach. Most of the above terms are found in Jastrow, but Haas makes no use of that scholar’s work. When confronted with a word or phrase or even a technical term that is unknown to him, our author does not turn to a Hebrew or Aramaic dictionary, but makes up whatever seems appropriate to him in the context-with all the resultant confusion.

I put the book down, not knowing whether to laugh or to cry.

That Haas writes as he does is understandable. He apparently doesn’t know any better. But scholarly presses, one thought, had readers.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see My work has been followed by the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (
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